The Midwives of Mission: a book review

When I picked up To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth our CommunitiesI was already a Michael Frost fan, having read several of his books on the missional church and incarnational community. I was less familiar with his co-author, Christiana Rice; however, as a missional practitioner, church planting coach and trainer for thresholds, she brings keen insights to what it means to partner with God in the birthing of New Creation for neighborhoods and communities. Together, they crafted a book that is both helpful and awakens my imagination for mission.

4137Frost and Rice’s book is about transforming communities and neighborhoods, as its title, To Alter Your World, implies. Yet, I think this is one book where the subtitle, Partnering with God to Rebirth our Communities, is a more apt description of the book and its contents. The first half of the book (chapters 1 to 6) rests on images and metaphors of birth: labor, birthing, midwifery. The latter half of the book describes the dynamics of bringing social and spiritual change to neighborhood and place.

In chapter 1, Rice & Frost describe how God groaned like a woman in labor (Isa 42:14) awaiting Israel’s rebirth—their return from exile and captivity (14). They connect Israel’s experience to the Church’s role in welcoming the Kingdom of God into our broken world. In both cases, it is God who does the (re)birthing of communities, and not our frenetic religious or political activity.  Nevertheless, we are invited to partner with God in his restorative work. “Only this one—the Ancient of Days—can change our world, and those of us who have heard God’s groans and responded in faith are invited to serve God in this empire-shattering work” (28).

In chapter 2 and 3, Rice and Frost address the types of things which stand in the way of partnering in the New Creation,  God is bringing (e.g. the church’s disengagement from secular life, colonizing methodologies,  and big-box rootless churches, disconnected from the places and communities they inhabit). Frost and Rice articulate an invitation to churches and missional communities to be a disruptive presence by heeding God’s restorative purposes for communities.

In Chapters 4 through 6, Midwives to the Birth of the New Creation, Rice and Frost describe five Midwife practices. These practices are:

  1. – Releasing our Agendas.
  2. – Shaping the Environment
  3. – Holding the Space for Birth
  4. – Being Flexible and Fearless
  5. – Living Out a New Narrative

The metaphor of midwifery is an alternative metaphor to the sort of militaristic ‘band-of-brothers’—let’s take this city for Christ!—metaphor for mission. Midwives don’t deliver babies, they attend births, hold the space, help open doors, and nurture the birthing process. Frost and Rice draw the parallels between midwives attending birth children and leading pioneering missional movements which transform communities. Missional leaders attend to the New Creation God is birthing in their neighborhood context. Rice draws parallels between the midwife’s role at the birth of her children, and she and Frost point to stories of similar dynamics, as missional communities and churches partnered with what God was birthing in their communities.

In chapter 7 they present the Emory Social Change Model, which describes social change at the level of (1) the individual, (2)interpersonal relationships, (3) community, (4) institutional and (5) structural levels. While all levels are necessary and are encompassed by concentric circles, most churches operate at the individual and interpersonal levels, “encouraging personal self-awareness, congruence, and commitment” (124). However, Frost and Rice argue that to “catalyze social change there needs to be more work done on the three higher tiers” (124). By focusing on community and societal transformation, missional communities cast a bigger vision for what social transformation may look like in their contexts.

Chapter 8 demolishes the old clergy/laity divide, describing a more inclusive vision of work and vocation for community/church members. Chapter 9 explores how to change the world through place crafting (the church working with-in and in-with the wider community to bring about mutual flourishing). In chapters 10 and 11, Frost and Rice describe how the road towards social change, is also a road of mutual life with those communities. Missional communities do not just work to change others, they too are changed.  Missional communities do not just do just ‘take the city for Christ’ but are invited into a lifestyle of suffering and greater vulnerability as they seek the good of the city (or neighborhood) they are planted in.

Frost and Rice have given some helpful and heartfelt instruction to those of us who long to see the Kingdom more fully revealed in our midst.  Through stories and the midwife metaphor, they make vivid a vision of mission. On a personal level, I found the ‘midwife/birthing’ chapters the most compelling part of this book, because it describes the missional vocation as actively partnering in the process of bringing about new creation (the Kingdom of God/the fall of empire/social change) without turning the minister into ‘the one who makes it all happens.’ The role of the midwife is not passive, but responsive, not manipulative but attentive and nurturing. This seems fundamentally right to me.

The sections on social change, place-crafting and ‘work as vocation’ are helpful. I underlined a lot of things and I think Frost and Rice say things well (and give lots of examples from their lives or from fellow missional practitioners). These sections weren’t new to me, in the sense that every missional author I respect says something similar, but they did flesh out a few of the ways we can enlarge our vision of what social change and put it into practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

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